by William B Milam
The writer is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC and former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh
It is unlikely that Edmund Burke ever uttered the sound bite most famously attributed to him, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. Yet, these apocryphal words frame the political revolution of the last 325 years, during which, representative governance has emerged as a compelling alternative to the authoritarian rule that prevailed through most of human history. The 1688 Glorious Revolution in England is credited by historians as the starting point of this political transformation. The parliamentary limits placed in that year on the authority of the King and the state were, of course, in the beginning, designed by the elite to ensure their grip on power. But big things start small.
Over the ensuing centuries, good people in many countries have pushed back against authority in order to loosen the grip of the elite and share their power. Their success appears to correlate with the development of political and social institutions, which are broadly representative of the interests of society as a whole — in other words, institutions which include not only representatives of the elite clinging to power, but also the groups in society, which have attained enough economic leverage and social cohesion to transform institutions and demand a voice in running the state.
After 1688, political revolutions became a habit, it seems. Burke liked the 1765-1783 American Revolution, which resulted, ultimately, in an inclusive, democratic society and political structure. He ended up disliking the French Revolution, perhaps because it lasted (as he predicted), in one form or another, with periods of extreme authoritarianism, for about 80 years before France ended up as an inclusive, democratic society.
While intellectual contradictions abound in Burke’s writing (both the left and the right take comfort in things he wrote and claim him for their own), I feel quite sure that he would revile the so-called revolutions of the 20th century. The Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Nazi and other fascist revolutions of the 1920s and the 1930s, were revolutions by stealth, in which minorities seized power, either after elections or in the collapse of a corrupt ancien regime, and without popular mandate, imposed their revolutionary agenda through demagoguery, repression, ideological indoctrination and a falsified historical narrative often including the scapegoating of a particular group. They often used mass murder to carry out their programmes.
Despite Burke’s ambiguity on democracy, one theme runs through his core political writing — the great danger he saw in all revolutions was the potential for the emergence of authoritarian, repressive government with unchecked power. In his 1770 treatise, “Thoughts on the Causes of Our Present Discontent” (a title that resonates through the succeeding centuries to the present), Burke argued for strict limits on the authority of the King and supported the role of political parties in preventing abuses of power by the government. He wrote: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
In this century, revolutions have occurred mainly in the Islamic world. How Burke would have felt about them is hard to say, but it strikes me that he would initially approve of those that come from the bottom up. Surely, however, he would be quite concerned when well organised, ideological groups appear to take control of what began as a general uprising, as well as the Thermidorian reactions in some by the elite, which are striving to maintain their exclusive hold on institutions and, thus, the state.
I suspect, however, that he would be most concerned about the revolutions by stealth. In this category, Bangladesh is the most egregious, and ironically, the most likely to produce a purely authoritarian state. A one-party election has produced a one-party state. The major opposition party is in both intellectual and organisational disarray, which is, of course, aided by the government crackdown on opponents and dissenters in the media, and the scapegoat religious parties. Civil society is both fragmented and cowed. The government has rewritten the narrative history of the country’s troubled birth to suit its own purposes. This is surely a Burkean situation: the good people must come together (associate) to stop the bad people, who are together, if those good people are not to fall one by one. Bangladesh, which was once hailed as a paragon of political and social modernisation in the Islamic world, will join the overcrowded ranks of one-party authoritarian states with corrupted, extractive institutions, which real modernisation will continually elude if good people remain supine.
Source: The Express Tribune